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The Flight of Their Lives : Burbank: Seven earthbound youngsters who wrote winning essays about their hopes, dreams and fears of flying take a round trip to Oakland.

June 27, 1991|DOLORES A. LONG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One Burbank child wanted "to see the blue sky close."

"I would learn not to be scared," another said.

"I do not know if Oakland is an exotic city, but I would be delighted to find out," said a third.

The children--all fourth-graders in the Burbank schools who had never before flown--were among 50 students who entered the "First Flight Fantasy" in hopes of winning their first airplane flight, in this case a round trip from Burbank Airport to Oakland. Selection of the seven winning youngsters was based on the essays that they wrote expressing their hopes, dreams and fears of flying.

The winners were treated to the flight of their lives.

On a recent Saturday morning, the first-time travelers--Dena Fox, Christina Mehrabians, Elisa Doroteo, Janice Doan, Cindy Blanco, Jacquie Sandoval and Deanna Perez--gathered with their parents in the Glendale Room of the Burbank Airport for a preflight briefing.

The youngsters got a peek behind the reservations/ticket counter of Alaska Airlines, which provided the free flight, and were greeted by airline officials and a dozen members of Friends of the Airport (FOA), a citizens' support group that sponsored the contest. Frank Winburne, the airline's customer service supervisor, answered the students' questions before they departed on a regularly scheduled flight, No. 173, for Oakland.

The "First Flight Fantasy" contest was the brainchild of elementary schoolteacher Linda Walmsley, a member of the FOA board of directors. "Since I'm a teacher," Walmsley said, "I suggested we do something with kids. Also, the importance of writing is being emphasized in the schools this year, so I thought, why not put some educational value into our FOA project?"

Entries were judged on writing skill and creativity by a panel of three judges, one each from FOA, the Airport Authority and the Burbank Unified School District.

The students were asked to explain their reasons for wanting to fly, and their essays ranged from the purely educational--"I would learn not to be scared, and would see lots of pretty sights"--to the self-promotional--"I am cute, adorable, well-mannered"--to the curious--"I do not know if Oakland is an exotic city, but I would be delighted to find out"--to the highly enthusiastic--"I think it would be a new, fun, great, fantastic, super, excellent and wonderful experience."

One flight hopeful, sounding a lot like a future pilot, said he wanted "to see the blue sky close and feel the experience."

Greg Goforth, Alaska Airlines sales representative, said the airline was approached with the plan last year and responded enthusiastically.

"I looked back on my own childhood, and even as a military kid I had never had an opportunity to get on a plane. I felt this contest as a chance to give children in the community an opportunity to share in the airline industry," he said. "When I saw how excited they were this morning, it made all the months of planning worthwhile."

The event conjured up memories for others as well. Pasadena resident Dick Meriwether, one of the FOA members who greeted the group, fondly recalled his own first flight. "It was a small plane in Germany; I was a member of the 1st Armored Division. I remember enjoying it so much because you got such a wonderful view of the world."

Meriwether said the activity was planned by Friends of the Airport as part of the group's continuing effort to raise the facility's profile with the flying public. "There's been a tendency with many reservation makers to immediately think of LAX, and they don't realize the capabilities at Burbank."

Goforth said Alaska Airlines was so pleased with the results of this year's event that the company hopes to do it again next year.

But the young travelers didn't care much about the official reasons for their good fortune. They just wanted to fly, even though some had trepidations.

"I was really scared during takeoff," admitted 10-year-old Christina. "I was holding on to the armrest really tightly. But going up and down was the great part."

Deanna, 9, said she was "surprised to see how little everything looked," a sentiment echoed by Dena, 10. "I had a window seat and everything down below looked like a jigsaw puzzle from the air."

Although the flight didn't seem to inspire any future pilots, a visit to the cockpit proved the most awe-inspiring for the young travelers. "There looked like a lot of buttons to push," Dena said. "I think I might like to be a stewardess instead."

Even the most apprehensive of the fliers were a bit more enthusiastic about air travel by the time the plane touched down again at Burbank at 3:45 that afternoon. Nine-year-old Janice, for instance, said, "I was a little scared at first, but Elly Mixsell"--an airport spokeswoman who went along as a chaperone--"said she would hold my hand, and that helped. It was really exciting, and I like when the plane took off and we went up. I felt more comfortable on the trip coming back because I knew what to expect and it didn't seem so scary."

Long is a Van Nuys writer.

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